Indy win gives defending Winston Cup champ IROC crown
Updated: Wednesday August 08, 2001 11:21 PM
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bobby Labonte couldn't help it. It was just racing.
The wiggle that sent teammate Tony Stewart crashing into the wall in he fourth turn late in the IROC race Saturday wasn't intentional.
The accident knocked Stewart out of contention in the last of four True Value International Race of Champions events this season and handed Labonte a six-car length victory -- and the IROC title.
"This car was really loose most of the day," said Labonte, who went into the race with three other drivers, including Stewart, within five points of his lead. "I tried all I could do to stay off of him."
When Labonte couldn't, he wound up beating runner-up Stewart by 10 points, 68-58, for the $250,000 series prize. Labonte raced with a little No. 3 on his car, a tribute to last year's IROC champion, Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator started the season as one of the 12 drivers in the all-star series and was not replaced after his death in the Daytona 500.
It was the one-on-one duel between Labonte and Stewart, friends who both drive for Joe Gibbs Racing on the Winston Cup circuit, who drew most of the attention Saturday.
During the second half of the race, the two battled alone for the victory and the points title, with CART star Kenny Brack and Eddie Cheever of the Indy Racing League, the other contenders, trailing.
Brack finished one point behind Stewart in third, followed by Cheever another 10 points back.
With about 70,000 spectators scattered through the vast Indy grandstands cheering them on, Labonte and Stewart raced side-by-side for several laps at a time. They bumped, made passes and attempted more passes before Stewart got caught in the wake of Labonte's Pontiac Trans-Am and slammed into the concrete wall on the 35th of 40 laps on the 2.5-mile oval.
"I didn't want to race like that," Labonte said. "We traded a little bit of paint -- didn't really mean to."
Stewart bounced off the wall and kept racing but wasn't able to challenge again.
Stewart, who grew up about an hour south of Indianapolis, was not angry at his teammate.
"I don't know what happened," Stewart said. "We probably picked up a big push, and he ran me right out into the fence. To run second here, there's no disgrace in that, especially to your team. It was a fun race."
Stewart spent the early part of the race charging hard, easily moving past Labonte and Buddy Lazier in the first 10 laps, to go from eighth to second.
He spent most of the next 10 laps chasing Jeff Burton, who had pulled away from the rest of the 11-car field. On the restart after a caution flag for debris on the track, Stewart and Labonte sandwiched Burton in the middle of turn 3.
Labonte and Stewart both passed Burton safely, but as Burton tried to dip in behind Stewart on the inside, defending IRL champion Buddy Lazier slammed into the back of Burton's car. Both hit the wall hard, but neither was injured.
"It was just good hard racing," Lazier said. "I feel fine, but it was a hard hit. When you are racing hard, you just run out of room."
Labonte took advantage of the next restart, on lap 20, speeding past Stewart, into the lead and setting off a battle between the two Winston Cup drivers that lasted until Stewart bounced off the wall.
On the 24th lap, Stewart tried to pass on the outside, and Labonte held him off. Then Stewart tried to pass on the inside, and Labonte held him off again.
Two laps later, Stewart finally succeeded, scooting past Labonte on the inside.
Labonte waited eight laps, then responded by trying to pass on the inside as the cars bumped coming down the straightaways.
On the 35th lap, the two cars came out of the fourth turn too high and bumped again. With Labonte on the inside, Stewart hit the wall ending his hopes of victory.
"I wouldn't have run that close with anybody else," Stewart said. "I trust Bobby more than I trust anybody. I ran out of real estate, I didn't expect him to do that."
NASCAR's Dale Jarrett was fourth, with Al Unser Jr., a two-time IROC champion, filling in for injured IRL competitor Scott Goodyear, fifth. He was followed by former IROC champ Ricky Rudd, Cheever, Busch Series champion Jeff Green, Mark Dismore of the IRL, Burton and Lazier.
Labonte's average speed was 155.239 mph.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.